Edward II is a wonderful example of the exquisite sixteenth-century theatre craft of its writer, Christopher Marlowe. It explores, in depth, power, kingship, class, lineage and, yes, the close, divisive relationship of Edward and his lover Piers Gaveston. To describe it, as the press release does, as “the first gay play” is historically inaccurate (if it means the first play to deal with love between two people of the same sex) and, I believe, entirely misses the point by putting a twenty-first century construct on a masterpiece written during the reign of Elizabeth I: it’s a bit like saying the horse was the original driverless vehicle.
That is a shame because here we have an explosive and riveting production, directed by Ricky Dukes, that does full justice to the poetry and power of Marlowe’s original – despite some quirky aspects to Dukes’s adaptation. It gets going with a mesmeric opening salvo by Bradley Frith as Gaveston, which not only sets the scene for us but establishes the tone of the production and puts down markers for the mayhem that is to come. Frith is brilliant throughout, tough but flippant and dismissive of the barons whilst appropriately fawning with the king, his pliant and doting meal-ticket, whilst maintaining an underlying sense that this whole escapade is just one long opportunistic blag (yeah, that’s a 21st century construct – I learn fast). Frith returns at the denouement as Lightborn and has the transfixing gaze of a cobra as he goes about his deadly business.
Counterpoint to Frith’s strong and unsettling performance comes from Luke Ward-Wilkinson as Edward. Lurching from frail and fidgety to feisty and frighteningly unhinged, Ward-Wilkinson perfectly portrays how feeble Edward is and how unsuited to the office of a king. Besotted, consumed by lust and gooey-eyed love-angst, living off the adoration of shallow, make-weight acolytes, frankly he’s a bit of a nut-job and Ward-Wilkinson gives us the full gamut of child-like tantrum and unconfined self-interest until, coffined in the dungeon-sewer of his castle prison, he is pushed over the edge into full madness. Ward-Wilkinson’s eyes flare wide, his arms flail uncontrollably and his whole body becomes a repository for self-inflicted grief and despair. A consummate performance by Ward-Wilkinson that keeps us on the edge of our seats. As with Frith, these guys get Marlowe’s language to a T, revel in the poetry and play out the undercurrents with knowing glances and subtly expressive gestures.
Strong, stentorian, scheming Mortimer is played with exponential relish by Jamie O’Neil. He’s not very nice: the archetypal playground bully who gets everyone on his side, by fair means or foul, so as to persecute the flimsy
Edward and make him suffer. It’s more than just a power-grab with Mortimer: there’s a real distaste for lifestyle and values and O’Neil brings this off with powerful and disturbing accuracy. With an eye for the main chance he teams up with Edward’s spurned queen, Isabella, played with muscular intensity by Lakesha Cammock, who reveals an iron fist inside the lady’s frills. Cammock flutters her eyelids or puts the boot in hard as occasion demands and adds in some unexpected humour keeping the audience engaged and gripped throughout her authoritative performance.
Alex Zur as Edward’s brother, Andrew Gallo as Mortimer Senior, John Slade as Warrick, Stephen Emery as Lancaster and David Clayton as Canterbury all play their part in a strident ensemble that creates an atmosphere of intimidating ferocity, never more so than in the final dramatic execution of the beleaguered Edward. Though here I do take issue with the adaptation.
The play is re-imagined in a quasily-vague twentieth century England. No problem with that – Marlowe – and Shakespeare – lend themselves well to “modern dress” scenarios. The show’s featured prop is a sixties-style red BT telephone used at the beginning to reveal the death of Edward I and at the end for the future Edward III to castigate Mortimer. Here we get into “how technology would have altered history/literature territory”. If they had ’phones then Gaveston’s banishment would have been less drastic – they would have been on the ’phone to each other every day. It makes the first stage direction – enter Gaveston reading a letter – completely redundant. (A similar problem occurred in a recent modern-dress production of Richard II).
Christiano Casimiro’s costume design is excellent: grey shirts, formal grey trousers, some ties for the assembled barons, a gold suit for Edward with an assortment of catch-me cloaks: but I spent much of the play wondering why
no-one wore shoes or socks with these smart clothes. The answer came at the death scene where everyone had to strip to their underpants. So – ease of undressing seemed to be the answer: rather a case of the tail wagging the
dog, I feel.
But it’s the death scene itself where I really part company with Duke’s “re-imagining”. Spectacularly gory and extremely effectively done, it once again misses the point and veers violently away from Marlowe’s original. Lightborn, the murderer, is a wonderful Marlow creation. Almost a bit-part player – we don’t see him until the end – he is the original hit-man. Master of his craft, he revels in the pain of others and the ability to get the job done in the most effective and imaginative way possible. In the original, Lightborn tells his accomplices to prepare a hot-spit and have a table and a feather-down mattress available. The table is to be placed on the victim’s chest with the mattress between table and skin so no bruising occurs and one of the accomplices stands on the chest to expel the air and hold the victim’s legs.
Edward thus lies on his back – not on his front as here. Lightborn then applies the red hot spit. The whole point of this is so that Edward, the king, can be despatched without visible wounds – which are inside him – and without anyone knowing how he died. “Was it not bravely done?” asks Lightborn afterwards. Here with copious torrents of blood gushing down from the ceiling, plastic sheeting employed by the murderers in their underpants and Edward left in a blood-stained heap on the table after a bulkily decorative candlestick is used, there’s no doubt how he died.
Also eschewed is Mortimer’s connivingly cynical despatch-letter – unpunctuated so that it can be read two ways. All this, I believe diminishes the power of Marlowe’s play the full title of which is The troublesome raigne
and lamentable death of ‘Edward the second, king of England: with the tragicall fall of proud Mortimer‘.
Yes, Edward II is a tragedy: and it’s as much the tragedy of Mortimer as it is of Edward. Here, the final scene where Mortimer is sent to his death by the new young king Edward (over the ’phone), everyone is still standing around in their kecks: that’s not tragic – that’s just bizarre.
Despite these reservations this is a superlative show, powerfully performed by all. Marlowe, like Shakespeare, is obviously ripe for “re-imagining” (Samuel Beckett, for example, isn’t, and won’t ever be allowed to be). But for me, changing the text so that it fits into a twenty-first century idealogical construct is going a little bit too far: let the play speak for itself.
Review by Peter Yates
The King is dead. His son, Edward II, is crowned King. His first act: to call home from banishment his lover, Gaveston.
“Why would you love him who the world hates so? Because he loves me more than all the world.”
Marlowe’s homoerotic epic comes to the stage in this all-new, all-male ensemble production. Marking 50 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales, this production investigates, celebrates and explores identity and sexuality.
Edward II sees our return to The Tristan Bates Theatre and The Camden Fringe after our smash hit productions of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, Coriolanus and Tamburlaine.
Edward II Luke Ward-Wilkinson
Queen Isabella Lakesha Cammock
Gaveston Bradley Frith
Kent Alex Zur
Mortimer Jamie O’Neill
Mortimer Senior Andrew Gallo
Warwick John Slade
Lancaster Stephen Emery
Pembroke David Clayton
All other roles played by the company
Writer Christopher Marlowe
Director Ricky Dukes
Designer Sorcha Corcoran
Costume Designer Cristiano Casimiro
Lighting Designer Ben Jacobs
Sound Designer Jack Barton
Dramaturge Sara Reimers
Stage Manager Charlotte R L Cooper
Assistant Director Dinos Psychogios
Company Photographer Adam Trigg
Production Graphic Designer Will Beeston
Associate Producer Gavin Harrington-Odedra
Lazarus Theatre presents Christopher Marlowe’s classic.
Adapted & Directed by Ricky Dukes
Tue 22 August – Sat 9 September
Tristan Bates Theatre
1A Tower St, Covent Garden